I’m just back from a week in Bavaria, seeing Parsifal at Bayreuth (courtesy of my parents, who have been on the waiting list for tickets for at least fifteen years), so things have been a bit quiet on the research and teaching front. Now I’m back and starting to get my head around my teaching load for next year, so I expect that some thoughts on syllabus construction will be appearing here fairly soon.
In the meantime, as I read through the accumulated e-mails in my inbox, I came across this article from Faculty Focus, titled “What Are Students Telling You by the Questions They Ask?” The author splits questions out into four types. There’s the higher-order question, which indicates a student has a good grasp of the subject and wants to know more about higher level synthesis and so on. There’s the content-specific question, which asks for information the student hypothetically could have found in the assigned material. There’s the process question, which asks for some hand-holding through using a system or process they aren’t comfortable with. (Library catalogues and Chicago referencing spring inexhorably to mind.) Finally, there’s silence – and goodness only knows what that means, as the student isn’t communicating at all. All these questions, the writer suggests, help us see the underlying issues for each individual student, and we can start addressing those as well as the surface issue the question addressed.
One thing that came to my mind is that when I listen to student questions, while they often do fall into these categories, there’s something else they communicate in addition to the suggestions the post makes – and that is student interest. Questions are a great way of gauging what topics are really capturing the imagination of students. When I was teaching my course on gender and sexuality in the ancient world, questions were a really useful indicator for me of what topics were actually grasping the attention of the class, especially since so few of the people in it had any background in classics. Questions always came up around issues of religion, for instance, since the ancient world had very different views on religious practice to us, and students found that difference intractably fascinating. (This may have had something to do with the fact that the course wasn’t focused on religion but dealt with a lot of religious content – Euripides’ Bacchae, for example, and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.) If I get another opportunity to teach that course, I’m definitely going to do something to capitalise on that content interest and connect it to the overarching themes of the syllabus; drawing interconnections with topics that generate this kind of buzz means that you spread that interest through all the content you want to cover.
So questions do give us ways to informally assess student learning and thus provide the teaching individual students need to progress along their own educational journeys. But at the same time, questions help us as teachers learn where the spark-points of interest are, and so give us pointers as to what to use to get our students really engaged with the knowledge that we are trying to share with them. Listening to what gets discussion going can also help us construct our own discussion prompts for in-class discussion, at least as starting points. Student questions have a lot more to offer us than meets the eye, and we should try to use all the information that we can to improve what we do and how we do it.